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Setting as character, Part 2: Unique knowledge

In his book The Old Ways, travelogue writer Robert Macfarlane suggests, “The question one should ask of any strong landscape is: what do I know when I am in this place that I can know nowhere else?”

Not every location will inspire unique insights, but asking this question of your setting in general, as well as powerful sites within your setting, can be a useful world-building exercise.

If you’re not sure where to start, try recalling an experience of your own. Here’s an example:

About fifteen years back, I took my mother to Ireland for a week. One day we visited the Cliffs of Moher, which drop dramatically from green, rocky hills into the Irish Sea. Walking any distance was difficult for Mom, so we had a wheelchair handy and I pushed her up the hill to the overlook, a stone wall where tourists gather to gaze at the cliffs. She was happy to stay there for a bit, so I wandered off toward the tower. As I stood on the hill, looking out to sea, I got a powerful sense that the land not only welcomed, but claimed me. “These are my cliffs. They say to those who come by sea, ‘This far, and no further.’ If necessary, you will do the same.” And at that moment, I would have. The willingness to fight and die for a piece of real estate is a widely acknowledged notion, but I’d never actually felt it. Like many Americans, I’ve lived in many places, and I’ve liked some more than others, but picking up your life and moving it somewhere else is not only an option, it’s an expectation. I’d never encountered a place that demanded more of you. I’d never realized it was possible to experience no meaningful separation between who you are and where you stand. That was a very strange and profound moment.

Now, back to your setting. After you ask what unique thing your character learns from the setting, here’s a followup: How is the character changed by what he learned or experienced?

This change might be large or small, but it will occur. Every time we do or think something new, physical changes occur in our brains. Neural connections form or strengthen. Activity in certain areas increases. This process is profound, but it’s also invisible. Writers need to find tangible ways to demonstrate the impact knowledge has on a character. 

When I look for examples in fictious worlds, I keep returning to Darkover. The pollen of certain flowers had a halucinogetic effect that jumpstarted laran, a psychic ability similar to D&D psionics. The humans who settled there very literally knew things they could have known nowhere else. Initially, only a few people developed these powers. Since laran was hereditary, after a few generations, families who had it became Darkover’s ruling class. The world is like a strange and alien sorceress who, for reasons of her own, gave magic to a favored few.

When you’re thinking about the impact setting has on your characters, keep in mind that no two people are going to see the world in quite the same way, so your characters might learn very different things from the same location.

For example, let’s say your rogue and paladin walk into a busy summer faire. Your paladin feels profoundly uneasy, and she senses a flavor of evil she has never before encountered–banal, self-serving, grasping, a value system that glorifies vulgar display and useless material things above all else. Raised in a monastery, a veteran of holy wars, she knows how to deal with monsters and the armed forces of tyrants, but the inequity she sees at the faire–the wealthy gem merchant shoving his way past hungry children–is not something her sword can resolve. She might be struck with a sense of her own limitations, or perhaps by the realization that while she would gladly die to protect the people of this land, she doesn’t particularly like them. As she tells her companion, “There is nothing for me to fight here, and nothing worth fighting for.”  The rogue sees the same things the paladin does, but she realizes that she knows how to beat every one of these grifters, thieves, and lowlifes at their own games. For the rogue, the faire is like coming upon a mirror, suddenly and unexpected, and seeing something there she didn’t know existed. That might dismay or delight her. It might make her reassess her life, or it might raise her confidence level and prompt her to try something far more daring and ambitious than she’d ever before considered. Or both.

Again, this technique isn’t something you’ll apply to every new location, but it’s another tool for creating a settings with strong and distinctive personalities.

Setting as character, Part 1: Genius loci

One of the panels I did for Gen Con’s Writer’s Symposium was “Setting as Character.”  An hour really isn’t enough time to address this topic, so I  immediately started thinking about things to add to a similar discussion in the future.

First is the concept of genius loci, the spirit or essence of a place. This could either be a literal guardian spirit, or simply a distinctive atmosphere. It’s a good place to start a discussion of setting as character, but oddly enough, we didn’t touch on this at all.

As fantasy writers, we have a huge vocabulary of mythical and fantastical creatures who guard particular places. There are dryads and treants in the forest, nyads and rusalka in the waters, minataurs in mazes, and magical caves and sacred springs that have a different, less personified sentience. Not every fictional location has (or needs) a literal guardian, but this notion suggests a good thought exercise to use when developing a setting.

If nothing comes to mind, it might help to get the ball rolling if you look for examples in your own experience, or in folklore and fiction. Here’s a personal example:

We did a driving tour of Scotland when Andrew and Sean were in middle school, and one of my oddest and strongest memories was an afternoon traveling through bleak, deserted landscape on a one-lane dirt road. Every now and then there was a place to pull off to let another vehicle pass, but we never needed them. In nearly three hours, we didn’t see another car. No people, no sheep, not even a bird. The sun became mist-shrouded when we turned onto this road and didn’t appear until we came to a main road. Time seem to be suspended, and according to the milage on the map, the trip took much longer than it should have. The sense of moving from the world we knew into something alien and “Other” was powerfully strong. If I had to envision a genius loci, it would probably be a huge, translucent raven–a psycopomp that could ferry people between worlds. The image of a large, mist-colored werewolf also came to mind more than once. It’s hard to travel through that part of Scotland without feeling that the land could very easily express itself in the form of mythical (and probably malevolent) creatures.

Sometimes the genius loci  doesn’t lend itself to personification, but is easily identifiable as an emotion, attitude, or pattern of behavior. This isn’t an original theory, but sometimes I envision the setting of Game of Thrones as an elaborate gameboard, with the gods–the Old and the New and probably a few who are seldom mentioned in the prayers of the Westeros faithful–as the real players. They have their kings and queens, bishops and warriors, perhaps even their avatars. I don’t know what these gods want, but who ever does?  Still, their essence infuses certain locations, such as the sacred tree near Winterfell. In the north, the Old Gods still seem present; I don’t think it was a coincidence that the Three-Eyed Raven was melded to an ancient tree. But wherever you go, there are frequent references to ancient conflicts, and the feeling that the essence of Westeros is the sense that everyone who lives there is part of an endless, deadly game. 

When you’re doing the “character sheet” for your setting-as-character, start with some of the usual suspects–appearance, resources, and history–and then consider less obvious notions, such as what secrets the land might have, and how it would protect them. Is there something about the flora, fauna, or mineral deposits that create a unique characteristic?  (Example: The halucenagenic pollen of certain plants on the planet Darkover jumpstarted psychic powers in the human newcomers.)  What about the seasons?  A world with a predictable pattern of relatively short seasons will be a very different place that one that has a more elliptical orbit, two suns, or other factors that lead to extreme or extended seasons. If your world includes magic, the notion of genius loci is likely to be an important part of your magic system. Places of magical concentration, such as ley lines, haunted forests, and sacred pools, give a setting personality as well as power.

Since every character is revealed through his/her/its relationship with others, think about the relationship between the land and the people who live on it or move through it. Is it one of mutual benefit, or is it adversarial? How does the spirit of the land effect these people? Do they become dour, grim, and suspicious? Are they more likely to take an interest in magic than the people in the next valley?

Finally, how do your characters perceive the genius loci?  Is it something they fear and avoid, embrace and emulate, or simply accept as they would the weather and topography? Are they even aware of it? If residents are oblivious to something that visitors perceive, that opens a whole new set of story possibilities.

Meditation: Methods and madness

Learning to meditate can be a long, slow process. As I’ve previously discussed, I have a bad case of squirrel brain, and it’s never easy to get my thoughts to sit down and shut up. But I keep at it, a little every morning, and it’s starting to get a bit easier.

When I’m feeling particularly scattered, one thing that helps is starting out with a home-brewed chakra meditation. This gives me several things to focus on. I silently repeat the name of the chakra point and the related color as I breathe in, and on the exhale I focus on two qualities associated with that point and color. Moving my attention down the body also helps me identify and eliminate tension. (I carry an enormous amount of tension in my neck and shoulders, which probably explains the herniated disk. Being mindful of this, if only for a few minutes a day, does seem to help.)

Here’s my personal routine:

Crown: purple.  Knowledge, understanding.
Third eye: indigo, Perception, intuition.
Throat: blue. Communication, song.
Heart: green.  Life, love.
Solar plexus: yellow.  Breath, optimism.
Core: orange.  Motivation, creativity.
Base: red.  Strength, energy.

This gives my mind a lot to do. It centers on a particular physical area and checks in for tension, it envisions a color and sometimes a scene that embodies that color (an October landscape, for example), and it takes a moment to acknowledge values that are important to me. It’s a lot, but it’s also focused and deliberate, and it slows down the squirrel brain from a multi-directional dash to a more sedate jog. A couple of times through this routine, and I’m usually ready to simply follow the breath.

I’m not doing this because I’m an aging hippy, although admittedly, that description isn’t too far off the mark. The ability to focus attention is pivotal to creativity and productivity, and I’m determined to get a whole lot more of that going on. Meditation is one of the tools I’m using to turn things up a notch.